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Departing Ogilvy CEO Miles Young Reflects on Tempering a Proud Legacy With Humility

Building a global empire, but not 'an establishment brand'

Miles Young will leave Ogilvy in September for a new post at Oxford University. Photo: Ogilvy & Mather

For nearly 35 years, Miles Young's life has been built around Ogilvy & Mather, the agency where he consistently climbed the ranks, eventually becoming global CEO in 2008.

Now with Young's agency tenure nearing its end and his successor, John Seifert, in place, the transition of power atop the storied network is officially underway.

As Young prepares to leave Ogilvy to take a top administrative post at Oxford University in September, he is reflective about his time in advertising and the WPP agency that has been so formative in that career.

Young paused between his recent globetrotting around the Ogilvy empire to share some of those thoughts with Adweek:

Adweek: You had never worked at Ogilvy New York before being named CEO. How hard was it for an outsider to move to the New York headquarters?
Miles Young: There were challenges: A lot of people wanted to see me floating down the Hudson River in a raft without a lifebelt!

How did you work that out?
If you come in as a Brit and start saying [operations] are old fashioned, you tend not to be the most popular person in the world. And I could have handled the message more tactfully, but that's the way it was, and it had to be done. It wasn't quite easy at the start, but it became easy. The first 18 months were tough.

What achievements are you most proud of as Ogilvy's CEO? 
When you're running a company that's got as strong and unique a heritage as Ogilvy, the thing you're proudest of is to keep true to it and even go back to its first principles, which I've been able to do.

I was in Touffou [David Ogilvy's French chateau] recently spending a weekend with Herta [the agency founder's widow]. Because it was so cold, I couldn't stay in my normal room, a humble place outside the main house, and she put me up in David's study/library. So you're sleeping surrounded by all his books just as they were when he died. You go to sleep reflecting. I don't think he would have been too upset with me [during my tenure as CEO], and that's a pretty good feeling.

The roots of this company extend back to him, a creative person, a copywriter, who actually had strong views on art as well. In that sense we've gone back to our origins. That's been exemplified by our performance in awards shows—we were completely absent from them, and the [O&M] brand lacked spark. It was very worthy, but it lacked youthfulness and edge. David's brand always did have that. So I'm proudest of encouraging people to re-find those things.

How is that paying off for the agency?
It's evident to me now when we're recruiting that we have millennial appeal. I was just in Berlin at a training course for a group of young European fast trackers in their mid-20s who are absolute brand apostles. Their view of the brand is slightly different in form but not in content. We somehow managed to adapt and not become an establishment brand, which I think would be the worst thing for Ogilvy.

What was it like for you sleeping in David Ogilvy's last work space as you contemplated the end of your own career at the agency?
It was moving for me, an end of an era. This person has been part of my life either in a real, human way, although not through so many [personal] contacts but certainly in the sense of being the steward for eight years of what he established.

As you talk to Herta, you get the sense of David's frustration when he retired. It wasn't easy for him. He didn't approve of things that were happening at the agency at that time. Whenever one touches on one of those things, it's always about escaping from fundamentally what you're in business to do and you become a little grandiose. One thing I've always been scared of is being grandiose as a leader. That's why doing the training program in Berlin was so important to me. Since that program I've had a lot of one-to-one email correspondence with the kids. They don't see me as an unapproachable panjandrum. That's the proudest thing for me. I can have a perfectly ordinary dialogue with them. They don't see me as anything other than a colleague.

         

        Touffou, David Ogilvy's chateau, in the French countryside. Getty Images

How else is the agency different?
It's a much more thoughtful place.There's a number of contributors to that: We re-instituted our tradition of publishing about our thought leadership. I introduced The Red Papers, and we've published nine of them during my mandate, the latest one being about redefining the nature of branding in the content era. Clients have been highly positive in reaction to these Red Papers, which have all been provocative to some degree or another.

The other aspect to being more thoughtful is actually selling our thinking. I cannot overstate the role [OgilvyRED chairman] Carla Hendra has played in working with me as we set her up to establish a consulting practice. At the time you could have bet either way on whether it would be successful or not. There was a lot of sketchiness about it, to be frank. But it's turned out to be an outstanding success. OgilvyRED has a really viable consulting business that works independently with clients, including ones that aren't ours. This adds a dimension other agencies don't have—they've always tried to get into consulting, but she's made it work.

Another thing is product development, IP. [Worldwide chief strategy officer] Ben Richards is a transformative hire and the work he did on [integrated working methodology] "Fusion" has been part of every new business pitch we've won. The work that Colin Mitchell did on "The big ideaL" put us at the forefront of purpose-driven branding. It's being adapted now and evolving into a different concept as the world changes. What all this means is we're at the forefront of thinking about brands again.

How has the company expanded during your time as CEO?
We've had some absolutely transformative M&As: Digital companies like Bottle Rocket, EffectiveUI in the states, Brandigital in Latin America; Social Lab in Europe;  john st. in Canada;  PennyWise in Asia, Gloo in Africa, all significant businesses and we've been pushed by them into faster growth. But it's not just about acquisitions; there's been synergistic growth. Geographically, we've made massive steps. We took over our Middle East venture last year—that signing in Dubai was the culmination of years and years of negotiations. We took over in South Africa two years ago. We took a majority joint interest in our Scangroup (sub-Saharan) joint venture a year ago. Those represent big, big geographies. In that whole belt of the Middle East, sub-Sahara Africa and South Africa, we have an extremely strong basis for growth. We were the first agency in Myanmar and we have a team in Iran as I speak. We've got a capability developing in Cuba as well. 

You had an ambitious five-year plan when you took over. How has that worked out?

Ogilvy Shanghai's award-winning outdoor work for Coke.

We didn't anticipate the collapse of some of the BRIC markets. Russia, as an advertising market, is now much smaller than it was; Brazil is a complete collapse. China is doing pretty well—I feel positive about it but it is certainly slowing down. We're seeing growth there in different ways from different places; we're getting a lot of growth from tapping into the revenue of provincial clients who aren't as challenged as national clients. That means the BRICS, which we had based a lot of planning on, really have been working on one and a half cylinders (of economic power) so that was a change and unanticipated. Our response is to look at the markets beneath them, which we call the N-11 markets, the "Next Eleven," and these are markets like Indonesia, Vietnam, Turkey, Egypt. We're doing very well in nine of those 11 markets. One of the strengths of Ogilvy has always been we are early arrivals in market and we get strong positions. When I was just in China, I was there for a week and five of my meetings were with government ministers. You only get that kind of access when you've been there from the beginning, as we have been, and are trusted as a respectable and responsible member of China's business community and not just a foreign interloper.

Looking back, is there anything you'd do differently?
When you look back over eight years you wonder whether you couldn't have moved more quickly during the first two or three years. When you move into a new job, people counsel you, "Don't rush it, be careful, be cautious." That can be sound counsel, but sometimes I just wish I had moved quicker at the beginning. On the whole, though, there's nothing I would do differently. There are parts of the business where you feel you didn't make as much progress as others, but that's inevitable in life. In some places we've probably done a few too many acquisitions in the past and they've not worked out, but generally, "Je ne regrette rien."

What are you going to miss about the ad industry? Was it a tough decision to leave?
It was a tough decision. I'll be keeping links, of course, but I think I'll miss the adrenaline. This is a fight-or-flight mission, and you're pumped up daily. I can't imagine not having that so it will take some adaptation. The good thing is what I'm moving to is very people-based. If I was moving to a retirement home, I might as well shoot myself. I'm going to be meeting a lot of interesting people and being with young people, so that will be a continuing theme. I won't miss too much the advertising people. But having said that, they are what make the business, they are fantastic. Not just the people at Ogilvy but people in the industry who so many of which are bright and wonderful. There's something about living on the edge, which we do in this business, that makes it a bonding experience: We all fail to win a pitch, we all lose a client, we all lose a good person, we all feel the joy of hiring a good person. Those ups and downs are pronounced in our business, more pronounced than say the accounting business.

On a more personal note, what's it going to be like to leave New York City, a place you didn't like when you first arrived?
It was initially a bit of shock to the system. In Hong Kong, people are unfailingly polite, and when you arrive in New York, the hobo is yelling at you for not giving him enough money. It's different standards of politeness, so it took a little adapting to but I love it now. New York is just such a great place, one of a kind. People compare it to London, but it's actually nothing like it. New York is much more interesting and heterodox. There are some things where London might have an edge, like maybe restaurants, but New York is just exceptional. And it provides access to so many other parts of the states. I've hugely enjoyed traveling here. I feel regret that there's still so much to see which I haven't seen.

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